The Wonder Years Review
The debut film from Kim Hee Jung, The Wonder Years makes its intentions clear from the very first scene, as a young girl confidently makes her way onto a rollerblading arena, accidentally knocking down another young girl who is nervously trying to hold her balance. The girl in trouble is Soo-Ah (Lee Se Young) and she’s thirteen years old. Coping with life at that age is difficult for a young girl, the film seems to be telling us – a balancing act that some will manage to skate through unscathed, while others will fall by the wayside.
For Soo-Ah, it’s a particularly difficult stage in her life, as the young girl is rather taciturn, recalcitrant and self-absorbed. About to start middle-school, she finds herself in limbo with no real friends and distant even from her family. Her father having died two years previously, her mother (Chu Sang Mi) has to cope by herself to keep the family’s modest small-town restaurant business going and is too busy even to attend her daughter’s graduation. Things don’t get any better in Soo-Ah’s family life when a fellow trader makes off with their savings, forcing them to close down the business and move into a junkyard run by a friend of her mother. Her mother’s friendship with the man puts further strain on the mother-daughter relationship, leading Soo-Ah to dream of a more idealised surrogate mother in a famous pop-singer she adores, Yoon Sur-young (Kim Yoon-Ah). Doubts about whether her mother is indeed her natural mother push Soo-Ah to the brink of an identity crisis, one that takes her out of her small town for the big city of Seoul.
There’s not really much that is new in The Wonder Years’ coming-of-age drama about a surly teenager who hates her parents and hates her life. As well as the standard domestic difficulties – or perhaps because of them - Soo-Ah is wary of adults and boys, is bullied at school and has trouble making friends. A brief friendship with one of the popular girls in her class comes to an end due to jealousy, while a friendship with one of the wilder girls threatens to get her into a lot of trouble. The only place Soo-Ah can turn to for comfort is within her own fantasies, usually based around her favourite pop singer, who glamorously comes to rescue her in those moments of crisis with a song.
Apart from the lack of originality in the storyline, the problem with The Wonder Years is that it slouches around like its thirteen year-old protagonist, gazing forlornly at its shoes as it goes through its rote formula, dragging its heels like it can’t be bothered. You’re talking minimal effort, C+ material here - doing enough to get by, but not really showing any originality or personality of its own. It is able to depict Soo-Ah’s problems confidently and accurately on a surface level, but it doesn’t really seem to manage to get into the head of a teenage girl. Or worse – maybe it does. Perhaps all there is to find there is a desire to escape from the humdrum reality and misery of everyday life through adoration of a music star and the playing out of interior fantasies. If so, then it’s not really enough to base an interesting film upon, or at least not in the unimaginative way it is directed here.
The film is redeemed to a large extent however by the performances of the principal cast. Chu Sang Mi (The Turning Gate) is stretched to the extent that any mother of a difficult teenage girl would be, and remains credible throughout, but it’s Lee Se Young’s affecting and sensitive performance as Soo-Ah that keeps the film from drifting too far into sullen inarticulacy, giving her character a degree of personality that lifts it above the predictability of the material and the much-too-pat resolution.
The Wonder Years is released in Korean by HB Entertainment. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc and is in NTSC format. The disc is encoded for Region 3.
Filmed on High-Definition Digital Video, The Wonder Years looks simply perfect when transferred to DVD, having wonderful clarity and stability without looking too clinical. The tones and colour levels are graded so accurately that you would even be hard pressed to recognise this as being digitally filmed. There are no marks to be seen anywhere on the image, no edge-enhancement or macro-blocking artefacts, so to all intents and purposes this is just about perfect. Certainly one of the better transfers I have seen on a Korean DVD.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks and either will function equally well. There is certainly a wider dispersion of the mix on the surround track, but really it’s mainly only the music score that benefits from this. Elsewhere, the dialogue remains focussed on the front and is generally quite clear.
English subtitles are included, optional in a clear, readable white font. I didn’t see any real problems with the English translation of the film.
There would appear to be a strong set of extra features on the DVD, but none of them are English subtitled. The film comes with two Commentaries; the standard Making Of (26:29), made up of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of the range of scenes filmed over the course of the film; an Interview with director Kim Hee Jung (7:23); three Deleted Scenes (3:10); a fun-looking Trailer (2:07); and the obligatory soppy ballad Music Video (3:58). Unfortunately, without English subtitles, the quality of these features is hard to judge.
Although there is little that is unique or fresh about The Wonder Years’ blend of teenage problems and interludes of flights of musical fantasy, first-time director Kim Hee Jung directs well, taking a low-key subject and handling it with a degree of sensitivity. Strong performances from the main cast contribute to this being a solid enough debut, but not one that particularly distinguishes itself. The Korean DVD transfer from HB Entertainment is practically flawless.